The Snowden Leaks and the Public

1.

It is harder than you might think to destroy an Apple MacBook Pro according to British government standards. In a perfect world the officials who want to destroy such machines prefer them to be dropped into a kind of giant food mixer that reduces them to dust. Lacking such equipment, The Guardian purchased a power drill and angle grinder on July 20 this year and—under the watchful eyes of two state observers—ripped them into obsolescence.

Alan Rusbridger
Alan Rusbridger; drawing by James Ferguson

It was hot, dusty work in the basement of The Guardian that Saturday, a date that surely merits some sort of footnote in any history of how, in modern democracies, governments tangle with the press. The British state had decreed that there had been “enough” debate around the material leaked in late May by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. If The Guardian refused to hand back or destroy the documents, I, as editor of The Guardian, could expect either an injunction or a visit by the police—it was never quite spelled out which. The state, in any event, was threatening prior restraint of reporting and discussion by the press, no matter its public interest or importance. This was par for the course in eighteenth-century Britain, less so now.

In our discussions with government officials before July 20 we had tried to impress on them that, apart from being wrong in principle, this attempt at gagging a news organization was fruitless. There were, we told them, further copies of the Snowden material in other countries. We explained that The Guardian was collaborating with news organizations in America. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first dealt with Snowden, lived in Rio. The filmmaker Laura Poitras, who had also been in contact with the former NSA analyst, had more material in Berlin. What did they imagine they were achieving by smashing up a few hard drives in London?

The government men said they were “painfully aware” that other copies existed, but their instructions were to close down the Guardian operation in London by destroying the computers containing information from Snowden. At some level I suspect our interlocutors realized that the game had changed. The technology that so excites the spooks—that gives them an all-seeing eye into billions of lives—is also technology that is virtually impossible to control or contain. But old habits die hard—hence the appeal of using the courts to stop publication. Both the 1917 US Espionage Act and the 1911 British Official Secrets Act—each with roots in wartime sedition and spy fever—cast a long shadow.

America has its own difficulties with journalists and their sources. But it is, nevertheless, a kinder environment for anyone trying to inform the sort of public debate regarding security and privacy that, post-Snowden at least, everyone seems to agree is desirable. The main advantage in the US is that it is, I hope, unthinkable that the American government would try to prevent publication…


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